Edith Piaf still has place in French hearts as nation marks centenary of her birth
To the French, she was La Môme, the Little Sparrow who warbled her way off the streets of Paris and into international stardom. Edith Piaf had a song for every occasion, most of which mirrored the drama of her colourful life.
Je ne regrette rien, sang the cabaret singer raised by prostitutes in her grandmother's Normandy brothel. When she died, the Catholic Church refused to officiate at her funeral because her lifestyle was deemed sinful, but the procession to the cemetery brought the French capital to a standstill.
The 100th anniversary of the singer's birth falls in December this year and her life and legacy is being celebrated in an exhibition in Paris, which runs until August 23. The National Library of France has amassed more than 400 exhibits including photographs, song sheets, handwritten notes, posters - some never before seen by the public - as well as film excerpts and musical recordings aimed at reminding visitors of the role the cabaret singer played in French cultural history and collective memory.
In her signature black dress, she seduced audiences with La Vie en Rose, Hymne à l'amour and Milord, the ballad of a lower-class girl who develops a crush on an elegant British gentleman.
"The magic of Piaf is her repertoire that touches everyone," says head curator Joël Huthwohl. "She sang simple songs with lovely melodies that spoke to everyone at those important moments in their lives. Also, the story of her life is fascinating and like a fairy tale; the poor, little girl born on the streets who became an international star."
Piaf's life was a classic rags-to-riches tale. Born Edith Giovanna Gassion on December 19, 1915, in Paris, her parents were from a family of circus performers: her father was an acrobat, her mother an Italian-born cafe singer, and her maternal grandmother a flea trainer.
While her parents continued their peripatetic life, Piaf is believed to have been left with her paternal grandmother who ran a brothel in Normandy. In 1929, aged 14, Piaf joined her father performing on the streets. She set out on her own three years later and, in 1935, was discovered by Parisian cabaret club owner Louis Leplée who nicknamed her La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow) and was responsible for launching her career.
While Piaf's popularity endured in France, international interest in her life and loves was revived by the 2007 film La Vie en Rose, Huthwohl says. Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for best actress for her portrayal of the singer.
"When she was alive, her image was that of a typical French woman who was much loved and, even when she became famous, had the image of being a woman of the people. Today her personality is still important but above all it is the songs, the melodies, that have endured," Huthwohl says. "It's the magic of the music."
As a nod to modernity, visitors will have access to a karaoke box where they can belt out their own version of her greatest hits.
Piaf's adult life was as turbulent as her childhood. During the second world war, she gave concerts for the Nazi occupiers of Paris and was later accused of collaboration, but Piaf insisted she had been secretly working for the French Resistance and escaped punishment. After the war, her fame spread rapidly abroad as she toured Europe, South America and the United States.
She suffered three serious car crashes after 1951, which sparked a lifelong dependence on morphine and alcohol. The singer married twice but her only child, a daughter called Marcelle, born when Piaf was only 17, died of meningitis aged two. Piaf also had several high-profile romances, but never completely got over the death of her married lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan, in a plane crash in 1949 while he was en route from Paris to New York to meet her.
Piaf died of liver cancer in her villa on the French Riviera in October 1963 aged 47.
The archbishop of Paris refused to officiate at a funeral Mass saying that Piaf had led a dissolute life, but her funeral procession to Père Lachaise cemetery drew tens of thousands of grieving fans.